Thursday, August 23, 2007

A Twisted Cable Fable – How New York is Really Pittsburgh

-- Kiernan Moriarty

I never knew I was from the Midwest until someone told me so, a revelation that occurred the day I arrived to college in Northern Indiana. I can’t snob out on the Midwest; I’m from Pittsburgh. From a credibility perspective the point is moot. Still, the perpetual plains and the slow roll of life there felt little like hills and spills of Western PA. So for argument’s sake I came up with a simple trifecta to append Pittsburgh to the Northeast:

1) Topography
2) Robber-Barons
3) Original 13 Colonies

Hold number 1 for later; since number 3 needs little articulation anyway let’s start at the apex.

2) Robber-Barons - Black and Gold:

You know that Andrew Carnegie and Henry Frick -names you see all over New York cultural institutions- made their gold on steel in Pittsburgh. In fact, when you refer to Carnegie Hall, any Carnegie Library, or the Frick Collection, you may well assume that the first of each was built in Pittsburgh.

Inversely, Pittsburgh gold also had an unrivalled role in building American industry. When Thomas Mellon founded his bank in 1869, he didn’t know that it would one day –that day being July 7 2007– merge with the Bank of New York to become one of the world’s largest financial institutions. But he may well have had such grand ambitions when he got involved in the likes of Alcoa, Gulf Oil (now Chevron-Texaco), Westinghouse (now CBS Corporation and Siemens) and Rockwell; all were directly founded and managed by the Mellon Bank of Pittsburgh. Not to mention U.S. Steel (the world's first billion dollar corporation), Heinz, General Motors, Koppers and ExxonMobil (as Rockefeller's Standard Oil), every one born and nurtured by the same bank.

Big deal -you may say- despite their philanthropy, these men were called Robbers for a reason. Fair enough, but not all captains of industry that got their start in Pittsburgh inspire such conflicted emotions.

‘Robber-Baron’ comes from the German Raubritter, feudal lords that stretched chains between towers across the Rhine and extracted tolls from passing merchant ships. Whether John Roebling was aware of this legacy when he came to America from Germany on the tails of the Teuton term we can only speculate. We do however know that this non-Robber Baron industrialist first established his new farming community of Saxonburg in the slopes of Western Pennsylvania just north of Pittsburgh and predicted it would be the future center of America. Having shortly disabused himself of that notion and realizing he never really liked farming anyway, Roebling became bored and ventured off to try his hand at surveying topography for the state of Pennsylvania and its railroads.

And We Descend To 1) – Topography:

The terrain in Western PA is never level. Buildings cling impossibly to hillsides and roads switch back and forth up slopes in the middle of downtown Pittsburgh. The Allegheny Mountains are not exactly the Rockies, those peaks pushed dramatically out of Western plains. In Pennsylvania the topography seems violently carved and flipped from the earth -and it is- sprung from when the glaciers that made the Great Lakes went on a tear.

It was on one of his extended surveying trips through these humps that Roebling encountered the device that would give inspiration and direction to the rest of his working life. Western PA had and has the United States' largest and most sophisticated system of Inclined Railroads ('Funiculars' in Europe; 'Inclines' to locals). In concept an Incline is like a railroad married to an escalator. Picture a straight row of track leaned against a mountain like a broom against a wall. Now picture the car on that track positioned vertically just as if it were on flat land. Inclines were used to haul goods, raw materials, people, sometimes even full barges worth in a Fitzcarraldo style leap over the mountains.

The primary reason for the inclines’ use is that these mountains separated the still imperfect canal network off the Great Lakes from the river system connecting the Ohio with the Mississippi and straight down to the Gulf of Mexico. But with the Michigan and Illinois Canal connecting the Great lakes to the Mississippi through Chicago by this time, why go to all of the trouble? The second city may have White Sox, but their roster of robbers is nothing like Mellon’s team. Pittsburgh made a convenient diver$ion.

When Roebling saw the inclines being tugged by vulnerable hemp ropes, he seized on the proximity of the mills of Pittsburgh and an endless supply of steel and decided to try his hand at an engineering innovation. He had heard that a steel cable was being developed in his native Germany. Around 1840 the American version was born of this inspiration and it was not long before its newfound master had strung all the local hills and their respective Inclines with his work.

Soon he turned to the next physical barrier to transportation: rivers.

With three major rivers intersecting at the site of William Pitt’s British fort and present day downtown Pittsburgh there was ample opportunity to employ this material’s unique ability to span. Roebling was undaunted by the fact that no one had ever built a steel cable suspension bridge and quickly set to work crossing the Ohio. The basic model stemmed from his previous experience, with midstream towers taking the place of mountain peaks and his special cables following a well-tested and familiar path over them. Subsequent versions more and more resembled his future masterpiece, each a proto-Brooklyn Bridge in its own right. Within a few years he had completed a number of them in Pittsburgh and spawned a healthy group of competitors constructing similar structures. When Roebling decided to move on, he made a diversion to complete a frumpy older brother to the Brooklyn Bridge further down the same Ohio River at Cincinnati. It was his biggest to date. Afterwards, enticed by industrialist Peter Cooper and his son-in-law Abram Hewitt and the possibility to build a truly magnificent work, Roebling relocated his whole operation to Trenton NJ. You may have seen the forlorn slogan on that bridge, but in the case of Roebling’s steel cable ‘Trenton makes and the world did not take;’ Tammany Hall deeming it a conflict of interest for the head engineer of the Brooklyn Bridge to profit off the purchase of its most critical material. They were well studied in conflicts of interest – some of them conveniently had steel cable businesses themselves!

To the Bridge:

By the time towers of the Brooklyn Bridge were completed they were easily the tallest construction in the city, rivaled only by the likes of the Trinity and Grace Church steeples. Significantly, they were typologically nothing like church steeples or any other vertical construction of the day. No one had yet dared trump religious construction for so much pure function. That they were beautiful only furthered inspired the devilled minds of architects. The distinctly secular, non-tapered constructions of skyscrapers undoubtedly found precedent in the imaginative towers of the bridge. In a city that became known for its tall buildings, these towers were the first.

From a functional perspective the skyscraper as occupied building is only an efficient construction where geography or topography has prevented horizontal expansion. But when the island of Manhattan came to define the iconography of the metropolis with its spiked skyline, other cities began to imitate its verticality; the typical American downtown became a loose organization of skyscrapers surrounded by empty lots and farmlands. The exception to this folly is found in certain geographically constrained cities. Pittsburgh with its three rivers comes to mind.

If one takes a step back to follow the abstract the sweep of the steel cables over Brooklyn Bridge towers they begin to have something of the look of mountains. Something like the Alleghenies over which Roebling originally threw his steel ropes. His unprecedented model for a suspension bridge followed the only diagram he new for spanning cable over a barrier; except that there are no mountains in the middle of a river. Thus Roebling invented the proto-skyscraper for lack of Pittsburgh terrain!

Now think of the visual metaphor in the New York skyline. Does it not also leap and dive just like mountains? So New York City mountains (the skyline) are made of buildings (skyscrapers) spawned from a building (Brooklyn Bridge towers) spawned from Pittsburgh mountains (Alleghenies).

We know that Pittsburgh steel built the skyscrapers of Manhattan. And we know that Pittsburgh gold had an uncontested role in building the industrial and cultural institutions were responsible for those same towers. Now we can conclude that world’s great capital was not only built and financed by this little supposed Midwestern town but also that it’s skyline -the very icon of the modern city- was born from the rise and fall of Pittsburgh!

Call it a leap, but a leap is best made off buildings and bridges.